(Edited from a longer in-depth piece published in 2014 and divided into parts).
(Reading time main text: 8 mins.)
The dominant class in the UK and in some of the British Commonwealth will shortly be calling people to join in a cultural festival which they call “Remembrance” – but that’s not at all what it’s really about.
The organisation fronting this festival in the ‘UK’ is the Royal British Legion and their symbol for it (and registered trademark) is the Red Poppy, paper or fabric representations of which people are encouraged to buy and wear.
And in some places, such as the BBC for personnel in front of the camera, or civil servants in public, or sports people representing the UK, forced or bullied into wearing.1
In many schools and churches throughout the ‘UK’, Poppies are sold and wreaths are laid at monuments to the dead soldiers in many different places. The pressure to wear and display one of the symbols is intense and public figures declining to do so are metaphorically pilloried2.
Prominent individuals, politicians and the media take part in a campaign to encourage the wearing of the Poppy and observance of the day of remembrance generally and for a decade now, to extend the Festival for a yet longer period.
This alleged “Festival of Remembrance” includes concerts at the Royal Albert Hall and the military and veterans’ parades to the Cenotaph memorial in Whitehall, London, on “Remembrance Sunday”.
The Royal Albert Hall concert is replete with military uniforms, British Royals’ presence and “Poppy” symbols everywhere. The big Saturday evening concert starts and ends with the UK state’s anthem, God Save the Queen/ King played by military bands.
Tickets for the big event are restricted to members of the Legion and their families, and senior members of the British Royal Family (the reigning monarch, royal consort, Prince of Wales, the Duke of York and the Earl of Wessex). The event is televised.3
BUT WHAT IS IT ALL FOR?
We are told it’s for charitable purposes – the money raised from the sale of the “Poppies” and associated merchandise is to be used to support former military service people in need and the families of those killed in conflict.
We surely can’t object to that, can we? And isn’t putting up with the military and royal pomp a small price to pay for such charitable and worthwhile purposes?
Yet the main purpose of this festival and the symbol is neither remembrance nor charity but rather the exact opposite: to gloss over the realities of organised deadly violence on a massive scale, to make us forget the experience of the world’s people of war.
Worse, its purpose is to prepare the ground for recruitment of more people for the next war or armed imperialist venture – and of course more premature deaths and injuries, including those of soldiers taking part.
PARTIAL REMEMBRANCE – obscuring the perpetrators and the realities of war
The Royal British Legion is the overall organiser of the Festival of Remembrance and has the sole legal ‘UK’ rights to use the Poppy trademark and to distribute the fabric or paper poppies in the ‘UK’.
According to the organisation’s website, “As Custodian of Remembrance” one of the Legion’s two main purposes is to “ensure the memories of those who have fought and sacrificed in the British Armed Forces live on through the generations.”4
By their own admission, the purpose of the Legion’s festival is to perpetuate the memories only of those who fought and sacrificed in the British Armed Forces – it is therefore only a very partial (in both senses of the word) remembrance.
It is left to others to commemorate the dead in the armies of the British Empire and colonies which the British ruling class called to its support: in WWI, over 230,500 non-‘UK’ dead soldiers from the Empire and, of course, the ‘UK’ figure of 888,246 includes the upper figure of 49,400 Irish dead.5
The Festival of Remembrance excludes not only the dead soldiers of the British Empire and of its colonies but also those of Britain’s allies: France, Belgium, Imperial Russia, Japan, USA – and their colonies.
Not to mention thousands of Chinese, African, Arab and Indian labourers, mule drivers, porters and food preparation workers employed by the army.
No question seems to arise of the Festival of Remembrance commemorating the fallen of the “enemy” but if the festival were really about full “remembrance”, it would commemorate the dead on each side of conflicts.
German soldiers playing cards during WWI. Photos of Germans in WWI more readily available show them wearing masks and looking like monsters. (Photo sourced: Internet)
That would particularly be appropriate in WWI, an imperialist war in every aspect. But of course they don’t commemorate both sides; if we feel equally sorry for the people of other nations, it will be difficult to get us to kill them in some future conflict.
CIVILIAN CASUALTIES IN WAR
A real festival of remembrance would commemorate too those civilians killed in war (seven million in WWI), the percentage of which in overall war casualty statistics has been steadily rising through the century with increasingly long-range means of warfare.
Civilians in the First World War died prematurely in epidemics and munitions factory explosions as well as in artillery and air bombardments, also in sunk shipping and killed in auxiliary logistical labour complements in battle areas.
They died through hunger too, as feeding the military became the priority in food production and distribution and as farmhands became soldiers.
In WWII 50-55,000,000 civilians died in extermination camps or forced labour units, targeting of ethnic and social groups, air bombardments, as well as in hunger and disease arising from the destruction of harvests and infrastructure.6
Air bombardments, landmines, ethnic targeting and destruction of infrastructures continue to exact a high casualty rate among civilians in war areas: a Reuters study gave over one million killed by the war in Iraq and another study gave between 184,382 and 207,156 civilians killed in Iraq during the war and aftermath.7
That figure for Iraq does not include dead from pre-US invasion western trade sanctions (yes, economic sanctions frequently kill) or the 46,319 dead civilians in Afghanistan8.
The number of civilians injured, many of them permanently disabled, is of course higher than the numbers killed. Most of those will bring an additional cost to health and social services where these are provided by the state and of course to families, whether state provision exists or not.
Real and impartial “remembrance” would include civilians but not even British civilians killed and injured are included in the Festival of Remembrance, revealing that the real purpose of the Festival is to support the armed forces and their activities.
The 2014 slogan “shoulder to shoulder with our armed forces” underlines that purpose9 while contributing at the same time to a certain militarisation of society and of the dominant national culture.
The propaganda is more sophisticated this year: “Our red poppy is a symbol of both Remembrance and hope for a peaceful future” but “Poppies are worn as a show of support for the Armed Forces Community.”10
WEAPONS AND INJURIES
If the Festival were really about “remembrance”, they would commemorate the numbers of injuries and detail the various types of weapons that caused them.
But that might reflect unfavourably on the armaments manufacturers, who run a multi-trillion industry11 in whatever currency one cares to name, so of course they don’t. And if really concerned about death and injury in war, they would campaign to end imperialist war.
But then how else would the various imperial states sort out among themselves which one could extract which resources from which countries in the world and upon the markets of which country each imperial state could dump its produce?
So of course the Royal British Legion doesn’t campaign against war.
SANITISED HISTORY, MILITARY PROPAGANDA AND PUBLIC RELATIONS
Partial remembrance was indeed embodied in the song chosen by the British Legion to promote its Festival in the WWI centenary festival in 2014.
No Man’s Land, sung by Joss Stone, is actually a truncated version of the song of the same title (better known in Ireland as the Furey’s The Green Fields of France), composed by Scottish-raised and Australian-based singer-songwriter Eric Bogle.
The Joss Stone version contains the lyrics of the chorus as well as of one verse and one-half of another, omitting two and-a-half verses of Bogle’s song.
Some of the British media created a kind of controversy, at the behest of who knows whom, to have the British Legion’s song included top of BBC’s Radio One playlist. The song is reproduced in entirety below, with the lines sung by Joss Stone in italics and those she omitted in normal type.
Well, how do you do, young Willie McBride?
Do you mind if I sit here down by your graveside?
And rest for a while in the warm summer sun,
I’ve been walking all day, and I’m nearly done.
I see by your gravestone you were only 19
When you joined the great fallen in 1916,
I hope you died well and I hope you died clean
Or, Willie McBride, was it slow and obscene?
Did they beat the drum slowly, did they play the fife lowly?
Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down?
Did the band play The Last Post in chorus?
And did the pipes play the Flowers of the Forest?
Did you leave a wife or a sweetheart behind
In some faithful heart is your memory enshrined?
Although, you died back in 1916,
In that faithful heart are you forever 19?
Or are you a stranger without even a name,
Enclosed forever behind the glass frame,
In an old photograph, torn, battered and stained,
And faded to yellow in a brown leather frame?
The sun now it shines on the green fields of France;
There’s a warm summer breeze that makes the red poppies dance.
And look how the sun shines from under the clouds
There’s no gas, no barbed wire, there’s no guns firing now.
But here in this graveyard it’s still No Man’s Land
The countless white crosses stand mute in the sand
To man’s blind indifference to his fellow man.
To a whole generation that were butchered and damned.
Ah young Willie McBride, I can’t help wonder why,
Do those that lie here know why did they die?
And did they believe when they answered the cause,
Did they really believe that this war would end wars?
Well the sorrow, the suffering, the glory, the pain,
The killing and dying, were all done in vain.
For Willie McBride, it all happened again,
And again, and again, and again, and again.
It’s easy to see why the Royal British Legion might shy away from the omitted lyrics, which would hardly encourage recruitment or support for war.
Interviewed on video, Joss Stone herself said how important it was to be “true to the lyrics” and that “the last thing one would want to do would be to disrespect the lyric”.
Incredibly, she and John Cohen, the record producer, both separately claimed that they had captured the essence of the song lyrics in the British Legion’s version.12
Although Bogle stated that he did not think the Joss Stone version glorifies war, he did say that it did not condemn it and was ultimately a sentimentalised version that went against the intention and central drive of the lyrics.
“Believe it or not I wrote the song intending for the four verses of the original song to gradually build up to what I hoped would be a climactic and strong anti-war statement,” Bogle said.
“Missing out two and a half verses from the original four verses very much negates that intention.” (apparently in a reply from Bogle to a blogger’s email and quoted in a number of newspaper reports).13
The truncation of the song and the removal in particular of the anti-war lyrics epitomises partial “remembrance” and stands as a metaphor for it, the production of a lie by omission and obscuration.
Sanitised history, military recruitment propaganda and public relations is what this “Remembrance” is about.
3Description on Royal British Legion website in 2014 and matched by Wikipedia account of 2015 event
4Their website in 2014 and confirmed by Wikipedia for 2015.
7https://www.wired.com/2011/06/afghanistan-iraq-wars-killed-132000-civilians-report-says/#:~:text=At%20least%20132%2C000%20civilians%20have%20died%20from%2010,how%20many%20civilians%20have%20di%20in %20these%20wars. And Iraqi Civilians | Costs of War (brown.edu)
9The slogan of RB Legion in 2014.
11“In 2021, the military spending worldwide amounted to 2.11 trillion U.S. dollars. The United States accounted for 38 percent of total military worldwide spending” Defense spendng and arms trade – Statistics & Facts | Statista
12Videos containing quotations from Joss Stone and John Cohen about how they have stayed “true to the song” or “lyric” of No Man’s Land by Eric Bogle https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ez1WBJaZZ7U#t=10 and
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6rotXZFXJWo were active in 2014 but now appear to have been taken down.
SOURCES & USEFUL LINKS
Against wearing the Poppy: Five reasons people don’t wear poppies – BBC News
A Unionist from the Six Counties’ view on the Poppy as a measure of support for the United Kingdom: Fewer people are wearing poppies in Belfast, as unionist symbols in the public space are successfully demonised by republicans | Belfast News Letter
Red Poppy Symbol:
(see also Red Poppy and British Legion links)
and Albert Hall Remembrance Concert: http://www.britishlegion.org.uk/File:The Royal Albert Hall, London during the Festival of Remembrance MOD 45159095.jpg – Wikipedia
Videos containing quotations from Joss Stone and John Cohen about how they have stayed “true to the song” or “lyric” of No Man’s Land by Eric Bogle were accessed at the following in 2014 but now appear to have been taken down: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ez1WBJaZZ7U#t=10 and
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6rotXZFXJWoWhite Poppy symbol:
WWI war dead:
Joss Stone’s truncated and rather awful version:
Eric Bogle, composer of No Man’s Land on Joss Stone version: Eric Bogle: I don’t like Joss Stone’s cover of No Man’s Land, but I won’t sue | Joss Stone | The Guardian
Joss Stone butchers No Mans Land | urban75 forums
“Controversy” over Legion’s 2014 Festival promotional song by Joss Stone (truncation of Eric Bogle’s No Man’s Land):
Civilian war deaths due to war in Afghanistan:
Civilian casualties in the war in Afghanistan (2001–2021) – Wikipedia
Civilian war deaths due to war in Iraq: Iraq conflict has killed a million Iraqis: survey | Reuters Iraqi Civilians | Costs of War (brown.edu)
Images WWI: Various sources accessed on the Internet
Veterans for Peace (June 2011-August 2022): http://veteransforpeace.org.uk
Video and song On Remembrance Day from Veterans for Peace web page: (lists British modern armed conflicts): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hPLtSkILwvs#t=62
NB: Sadly Veterans for Peace has ceased to exist as an organisation